Crumbling bridges are set to cost Oxfordshire County Council nearly £80 million over the next five years.
The county’s cabinet issued the stark warning this week while discussing its Highways Asset Management Strategy & Policy – the document that sets out how the authority will approach looking after pavements, cycle paths, roads and bridges.
The revised plan is set to prioritise footways and cycleways, lower dependency on car use, enhance ways of connecting people to green spaces – all methods that are better for the environment and a greater focus on preventative maintenance.
The last of those is set to be particularly important, with the council estimating it will need to find almost £100 million between now and March 2027 just to cover the basic maintenance needs of the county.
Oxfordshire’s network includes around 3,000 miles of road, 2,000 miles of footway and 1,200 bridges, as well as streetlights, signs, roadside drains, signalled junctions and trees.
Funding comes from two pots with around £20 million from the council’s revenue budget, used to provide services and set aside for preventative maintenance.
The second pot comes from the capital budget, money used to pay for bulky items such as machinery, buildings and infrastructure.
The government currently pays around £16 million per year towards the upkeep of Oxfordshire’s highway network, but it was not enough and has reached what the council’s report referred to as “a critical position” the county committed to matching that funding for five years from April 2019.
However, even that is nowhere near the £45 million required to “prevent any deterioration and maintain a steady state”, according to the council’s latest report that states that improvement “would require a budget of between £60 and £80 million per annum”.
A breakdown by section laid bare the issue with bridges – investment to fix them peaks at £4.5 million for the financial year 2024-25 before dropping to £1.6 million per year once the council top-up ends.
There is a total of £15.9 million currently allocated for bridges between now and March 2027, but it is estimated that the maintenance will cost more than £95 million.
A parlous state across the board was detailed by Councillor Andrew Gant (Lib Dem, Wolvercote & Summertown), the county’s cabinet member for highway management when explaining the council’s plan to mitigate costs.
“When you don’t have enough money, how do you use it most wisely? There is a very good section in this report on what officers refer to as lifecycle planning,” he said.
“It sets out the approach to investing in the smartest possible way, at the optimum moment in the lifecycle of an asset.
“When, as we all do as councillors, you get messages from your constituents saying that a bit of road or bridge is falling down, what are we going to do about it, the answer is we have to wait until it is exactly bad enough to justify being repaired to the extent that the repair will keep it not significantly worse for as long as possible.”
Councillor Dr Pete Sudbury (Green, Wallingford) expressed “horror” at the “almost banana republic-type way” in which new roads are funded without adequate provision to fix existing ones. “That is the sign of a nation that has taken a wrong turn somewhere,” he said.
Councillor Calum Miller (Lib Dem, Otmoor), the county’s cabinet member for finance, said: “It is something we will need to come back to and discuss in some detail because the figures are clearly very problematic.
“Most of the variance between our current forward plan and basic needs requirement is within a reasonable margin with the exception of bridges. That £80 million figure really does stand out, and as someone who has experience in my division of two recent bridge projects, I am very aware of the perilous state of some of our bridges across the county.
“It is something we will need to return to, hopefully thinking very creatively about the means by which we might finance future support for bridges because this kind of figure is unsustainable.”
Councillor Gant added: “One thing that has become clear to me since taking on the portfolio is that Oxford tends to specialise in crumbling old bridges, we seem to have quite a lot of them, and it clearly is an issue that needs to be thought about.
“There is a separate sum of money for bridges. But if you ask, as I do, whether communities can bid to that, the answer is no. It has already been allocated to help plug this gap.”